Impossible to ignore

13th December 2019 |   Dr Carmen Simon PhD

Impossible to ignore

Understanding the science of unforgettable selling presentations.


Every time you communicate with buyers, it’s an opportunity to move them in some way – to change, to choose you, or to stay with you instead of switching to a competitor.

The problem is your presentations are not moving enough.

People act on what they remember, not what they forget. The problem is that people forget 90 percent or more of what you communicate, and they forget it rather quickly.

So, how do you capture your buyers’ attention and persuade them to act in your favour? You make your message become part of their memory.

The latest scientific findings place memory at the heart of adaptive behaviour and decision-making. Studies show that in the process of making a decision, your brain notices something, predicts the rewards of acting on it based on past memories, and then uses that information to make the most favourable choice.

Think about that. The brain is a prediction engine. And memories are the fuel that helps it make better decisions. Memory doesn’t just keep track of the past; it helps you navigate the future.

And the same is true for your buyers.

Your buyer’s decision to purchase will happen in the future, but you can influence those decisions in your favour now.

In this article, you’ll discover the science of unforgettable presentations: Specifically, you’ll learn why memories influence future decisions, how to capture your buyer’s attention, and what it takes to stand out in their memories, so they decide in your favour.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Forgetting Curve – even the strongest initial memories are bound to be forgotten.

Controlling your 10%

For over a century, scientists have studied how much people remember (and conversely, how much they forget) after being exposed to new information.

A psychological concept called the “Forgetting Curve” (Figure 1) suggests that people lose information over time when they make no effort to retain it. In the first two days after you’re exposed to new content, you’ll forget most of it – up to 90 percent by some estimates. Even the strongest initial memories are bound to be forgotten.

Why do we forget so much? Knowledge erosion happens for three reasons:

  1. Failure to encode – When people learn something new, they perceive the information and relate it to past knowledge. But this won’t happen if people don’t pay attention to what you tell them in the first place.
  2. Failure to store – Even if people encode, they might still forget because their memories aren’t successfully stored. The problem is that a lack of sleep, stress, anxiety, or exposure to more information after the presentation can make the information more difficult to remember.
  3. Failure to retrieve – Even when memories are encoded and stored, people may still have trouble accessing that information when needed later on. This means you need to provide information at point A (the presentation) that they can easily recall at point B (the decision).

People forget a lot, but the little they do remember stabilizes over time. As a general measure, we refer to the small amount of information you will remember as the metaphorical “10%.” This 10% is what you must use to become part of your audience’s long-term memory, and it’s important not to leave it to chance.

The problem is not that people remember very little. The problem is that they remember very little at random. Imagine you’re speaking to five people. If they misunderstand or ignore your content, each person will take away a different message.

Unless you take control of the 10 percent that you want people to remember, your content is susceptible to random memory. Thankfully, there’s a framework for getting people to act on what you want them to remember. It’s called the Prospective Memory Model.

Figure 2
Figure 2: How do you make people remember information at Point B?

The Prospective Memory Model

Getting your buyers to act on what they remember always starts with an intention – an intention they already have or one you want to plant in their minds. The sooner you identify your buyer’s existing intentions, or help them set new intentions, the better you can plan to be part of their memories.

Prospective Memory, which means “remembering a future intention”, has remarkable advantages for every seller and marketer.

Imagine this for a moment: You create content at Point A, hoping your audience remembers and acts on it at Point B. The skilled presenter knows how to communicate information at Point A so that it sticks and motivates behaviour at Point B (Figure 2). How do you influence your buyers’ actions at Point B?

Research reveals that people act on future intentions when they complete these three steps, which sometimes occur within fractions of a second:

  1. Notice cues that are linked to their intentions
  2. Search their memory for something related to those cues and intentions
  3. And execute on their intentions if something is rewarding enough

People act on what they remember, not what they forget. The problem is that people forget 90 percent or more of what you communicate, and they forget it rather quickly.

With this Prospective Memory model in mind at Point A, you can prime your audience with the proper cues, help them keep what’s important in their long-term memory, and make it easier for them to execute on intentions at Point B.

In most business content, the process of Prospective Memory is left wholly to chance. As a result, your audience forgets a lot, and the little they do remember doesn’t always lead to action.

Three steps to influence memory and decisions

The three steps of Prospective Memory – noticing cues, searching memory, and executing on intentions – are all tied to the brain’s tendency to seek rewards and avoid punishments. When people talk about their future intentions, they’re visualizing a reward from either moving toward something positive or away from something negative.

People learn and adapt when they remember what’s rewarding and what’s not. When you ask your buyer at Point A to act on a future intention, they strike a tacit deal with you. They implicitly say, “I will stay with you to Point B as long as you keep me rewarded.” And they will look for rewards at all three stages: when they notice cues, when they search their memory for connections between those cues and intentions, and when they decide to execute (Figure 3). No rewards, no action.

How you can influence these three steps

Figure 3
Figure 3: Buyers look for rewards as they take steps along Prospective Memory pathway.

1. Create cues

Cues are signals or triggers that something must be done at a specific time, or during a specific event. People always intend to do something next. Connecting the proper cues to the proper intentions is the first step toward influencing others’ memory and actions.

For cues to work, they must be both distinctive enough and tied to an intention people care about. Sometimes people notice cues at Point B but don’t care enough to act. Or they care enough to act, but the cues aren’t strong enough, and they forget.

At Point A, ask yourself what cues your buyer might see at Point B that are distinct and relevant enough to trigger their memory from Point A.

2. Bridge cues and intention

After noticing a cue, your buyer will search for a memory related to that cue and their intentions to act.

If the cue and intention are sufficiently linked when you first present the information, and if they notice the cue when it counts, then the prospective memory process is effortless. They’ll act on the intention, even when they’re busy doing something else.

What cues will trigger the appropriate memory and entice them to act, even if you’re not in the room? Prime their brains with those cues at Point A, so they will prompt the right memories at Point B.

3. Motivating decisive action

People will act on intentions if the result is rewarding enough. But memory doesn’t influence action on its own – emotion and motivation also play a part.

The problem is not that people remember very little. The problem is that they remember very little at random.

Together, the three processes predict, measure, and recall the rewarding (or punishing) outcomes of a choice. The brain evaluates which choice is associated with which reward, and then chooses an action. If the experience is new, or there are no memories to draw from, it forms a new association based on the decision.

Are you making it clear how your content enables others to move toward something rewarding? Alluding to emotional and motivational drivers in your content increases the likelihood for action.

Getting the gist of It

People retain very little and at random. So, how do you control what they take away at Point A, so at Point B you can trust that they’ll remember and act on what’s important?

Science has coined what’s known as “fuzzy-trace theory”, which states that people form two types of memories: verbatim and gist.

Verbatim memories are word-for-word, carbon copies of what they learned in the past. By contrast, gist memories capture the general meaning of something from the past, and they’re less accurate and less specific.

Interestingly, gist memories tend to last longer than verbatim memories. This is because people’s minds wander in and out of paying attention every 12 to 18 seconds. During these brief segments of time, the brain has an internal dialogue to make sense of the information, then it formulates a meaning, and that new understanding sticks around much longer than the precise details.

Gist memories also lead to familiarity, which can be a strong decision driver. Even if people don’t remember any details, the exposure creates a feeling of familiarity. This “exposure effect” means that the more people are exposed to something, the more they prefer it, assuming it doesn’t move them away from what they consider rewarding.

Research shows that when people choose to act, they rely on memory to predict rewards and to guide behaviour.

Does this mean that verbatim memories aren’t useful? Not quite.

Verbatim memory is harder to keep intact for a long time, but it’s much stronger in the near term. So, it’s important to consider when you expect your buyer to make a decision. Right after you talk to them? A week later? A month later? The answer determines what kind of information you need to share – whether you should repeat specific details (and fewer of them) or share more general information.

Should your audience be able to repeat it verbatim or just get the gist? And if you only need them to remember the meaning, what degree of generality will work in your favour? Is a sense of familiarity sufficient for people to remember your message and act on their intentions in the future?

All these questions help you focus your “10%” message.

So far, you know that people will forget most of what you say, and if you can control the 10% of what they remember, you can influence peoples’ buying decisions. You also understand what kind of information to share if you want it to stick in their long-term memory.

Next, you’ll learn how to build cues at Point A that are powerful enough to influence your buyers’ decisions at Point B.

Figure 4
Figure 4: The importance of cues.

Made you look: building powerful cues

Your content may initially grab people’s attention, but over time, they’ll forget most of what you said. To influence their decision-making in the long-term, you need to build in cues, which trigger memories about your content, and motivate your buyers to act on their intentions.

Most people don’t sit around and wait for cues – they’re busy running their business and managing their daily work routine, and your solution probably isn’t top of mind amid these competing priorities. To affect your buyer’s action at Point B, the cues you communicate at Point A must closely match what your buyer will notice at Point B, and be distinctive enough to trigger a specific memory, even if they’re busy doing something else (Figure 4).

Cues are signals to act. Constantly ask at Point A: Am I showing my audiences a cue that attracts attention in a similar way to what they will see on their own?

Research shows that when people choose to act, they rely on memory to predict rewards and to guide behaviour in three ways:

  1. A reflexive way – People respond automatically based on past experiences.
  2. A habitual way – People repeat actions that have proved rewarding in the past.
  3. A goal-oriented way – People anticipate outcomes based on the past, but they can change their minds in light of new, more rewarding information.
Figure 5
Figure 5: Viewers can’t help but look at a specific area first.

To be on people’s minds, you must become part of their reflexes, habits, and/or goals they consider valuable. Next, you’ll discover how to use cues to influence action from all three of these behaviours.

Using reflexive cues

Size, shape, colour, and other physical properties have the power to attract your attention to a cue, almost despite yourself. Consider these two pictures, for example (Figure 5). Viewers can’t help but look at a specific area first. And if you control where they’re looking, you’re one step closer to controlling what details they remember from your content.

Your audience can easily become distracted or confounded by visuals that look too similar. Their brain has to work harder to take in and create meaning from that information. But if you direct their attention to the information you want them to see, using automatic, reflexive cues, you reduce the burden on their brain.

Using habitual cues

People pay attention to information that serves their existing habits. New habits take some conscious effort at first but, if the process is rewarding, they become more habitual, and people are capable of focusing their attention to those habits for extremely long periods of time, without much cognitive effort.

Once you know your audience’s habits, you can use strong habitual cues to direct attention to where it counts.

For example, one presenter was selling a social networking platform for corporate employees. In his pitch, he mentioned that in order to accomplish anything in a work setting, business professionals circle among three items: applications, content, and people. He could have visualized these three items with generic icons against an equally generic background.

Instead, he visualized the three concepts using icons that his targets would recognize in the context of their desktop – a habitual place. On the desktop, you see a folder called Applications, with icons representing PowerPoint, Excel, SAP, and Salesforce. You also see a Content folder, with icons for Word, Adobe Reader, SharePoint, and Jive. Also, a People folder, with icons for email, Skype, and WebEx. He introduced the name of the new application alongside the other software, represented by a neon-green icon. The placement and the color made it hard to ignore among all the others.

In addition to habitual locations, you can also give your audience cues to focus on specific, habitual thoughts, and link those thoughts to your message. Here are some examples of cues you can use to guide people toward their own internal thoughts.

Reactivate old memories – “Remember what happened when…” “What surprised you most?”

Note relationships between concepts – “What is the connection between your CMO and the IT department?”

Elaborate on something they learned in the past – “What did you notice after your last campaign?” “What will you do differently as a result of this experience?”

Derive meaning – “What happened that contradicted your prior beliefs?” “What does that suggest about your values?” “What did the experience teach you about your strengths?”

When you engage your audience with this kind of reflective attention, you promote long-term memory because you’re asking them to create a meaning around the information, which promotes gist memory.

The memories become even stronger if you reactivate them on subsequent occasions over time. If there’s something really important for your prospect to remember in two weeks, ask a few of the same questions you’ve already asked again, along with some new questions, to reactivate and reinforce their memory.

Using goal-oriented cues

Over the last several decades, there have been many conflicting theories about human needs. For each need identified by one psychologist, there has been another, opposite claim. But, scientists are finally considering that humans may have a core set of conflicting needs (Figure 6).

Figure 6: humans may have a core set of conflicting needs.

Your buyers are no different. They, too, will have conflicting needs and goals, all of which are aimed at achieving something rewarding. Can you find ways to tie your message to any of these needs and address their opposites?

Unlike reflexes or habits, goal-oriented cues require some level of cognitive effort to notice, but they still get attention because goals are typically fuelled by needs. And the fulfilment of those goals is rewarding.

The brain constantly seeks closure in pursuit of those fulfilling rewards. You might consider tying your content to an audience’s current but unfulfilled goal as a way to be more memorable. People tend to pay more attention to and remember more of what is not yet finished. That’s why soap operas and cliff-hangers are so effective – they always leave viewers hanging with one unexpected line or unresolved story.
Consider offering your audience both something they can complete using your content and something they can’t complete, for which they’ll need to return to you later on.

Strengthen the association between cues, memory, and intentions

Ultimately, you want your buyers to act on your communication. The challenge is that they’re busy with other priorities – you might only be one small speck against a crowded background.

The goal of using the Prospective Memory model is for your buyers to notice cues, search their memory, and act on intentions. This means you must create and strengthen the link between the cue, memory, and intention. At Point B, it’s not just reactivating the same Cue that counts – you need to reactivate the association between cue and intention.

To make that happen, you can explicitly state those associations, or you can ask your audience to say or write down their own intentions: “When I’m in situation X, I will perform action Y.” You can also use a combination of written instructions plus imagery. Studies show that asking someone to imagine for 30 seconds that they’ll do something in the future improves the likelihood that they’ll act on that intention.

Because your buyers will be preoccupied with other things at Point B, using the right prospective cue is extremely important.

How do you gauge if your cues meet the mark? Consider these guidelines for using cues to attract attention, at Point A:

  1. The nature of the cue – The more the cue corresponds to the memory itself, the stronger the memory. Weak connections don’t activate specific memories.
  2. The strength of the cue – Cues become stronger with enough exposure and repetition.
  3. The number of connections of that cue in our memory with other elements – At the point of decision (Point B), a cue must be distinctive enough so people don’t confuse your solution with someone else, especially your competition.

At Point B, in the retrieval stage, cognitive scientists use three criteria for cues that impact memory and action when it counts:

  1. The cue must be recognizable.
  2. They must be able to associate the cue with the right memory.
  3. People need to coordinate what they’re doing now and what they should be doing.

The link between memory and intentions starts by using strong, distinctive cues that are sure to be noticed later on. Noticing the cue is the hard part – it requires more cognitive effort than searching memory. Once the cue is noticed, the brain doesn’t need to rely on memory to determine what action to take.

Conclusion: making your content impossible to ignore

Using the Prospective Memory model for content creation, your goal is to become part of your buyer’s future.

You create content and share it at Point A, connect it to your buyer’s intention, and encourage them to remember to act on it at Point B. Using this approach, you can intentionally place memories in people’s minds and use cues to guide them towards future action.

Memory works on the basis of associations: one thing can trigger another. What cues exist in your buyers’ world that can trigger memories of you? How will you influence what you want them to remember, instead of leaving the process to chance?

The brain is searching constantly for the next and biggest reward. In the process, it balances ease and exploration. It goes back to low-effort habits that have proved rewarding in the past. And it seeks to learn new information that brings better rewards. Are you going to be part of your buyer’s next reward? When you develop content that hooks into rewards from the past but also provides new sources of rewards, you become impossible to ignore.


Chief Science Officer at Corporate Visions | + posts

Dr Carmen Simon, PhD is Chief Science Officer at Corporate Visions and founder of Memzy. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur, cognitive neuroscientist, and speaker, Dr Simon offers a ground-breaking approach to creating memorable messages that are easy to process, hard to forget, and impossible to ignore, using the latest in brain science. Dr Simon is the author of Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions.